Friday, June 8, 2012

Making sense of Anonymous' Operation India

The wave of protests that the world was swept with in 2011 is claimed to have trickled down in India: how far and to what effect, that's the question we ask. The controversy over Anna Hazare aside – that is, whether or not it should be considered a part of that world-wide wave – this time Anonymous has managed to put up an Operation India. They have managed to reach to a huge class of internet users, especially those social-network friendly people centred across many cities (even if this network misses out many places systemically), and has managed to put in place a physical protest. Hence, trying to understand them is somewhat justified, in spite of the many temptations against such an exploration.

AI opposes certain developments in internet-regulatory laws, which broadly imply:

  1. that the govt. has access to social-network postings of users of these social networks
  2. that there will be increased regulation of 'objectionable material' online, and provided that complaints are made by those aggrieved by something, such material would be asked to be taken offline
  3. that public hosting web-sites (torrents, certain video web-sites) will no longer be permitted to operate, in toto

Much of the present furore is limited to these demands. Which is a pity, because one expects much more from them when one reads of them. (Details found on the OpIndia page)

The parent of AI – A – claim that their purpose is to expose “government and establishment hypocrisy”. In their version of history, The Indian Government has been making strong laws that allow them to invade your privacy and to censor your free speech since 2008.” From the outset, two things are clear: the outlook of AI coincides with the most ignorant of presuppositions that fills the dominant Indian discourse, media, and thereby common sense; they are largely unaware of violent state-repression, and their freedom must be solely understood in the sense of internet rights (though we shall see that even their idea of internet freedom is somewhat skewed). This outlook produces such gems like “Fifty years ago, your freedom fighters laid down their lives for your freedom. Today, your Government has taken away those freedoms.” Or, often, abrupt dosages of Anna-wisdom: “The Government of India is shielding its ministers who are involved in corruption scandals. The Government plans to keep you ignorant about its tricks. They have censored out several websites that share information. Your Ministry of Communications & Information Technology & it’s minister Kapil Sibal is to blame.” Another, now irretrievable, went: “We stand for freedom. We stand for free internet. We stand against corruption.” Secondly, they largely target that audience which finds it comfortable to stick to these presuppositions, and hence AI is also unwilling to engage in questions about freedom and repression by a hypocritic establishment on any serious level. In a way, it helps: it creates the impression that history was fair till now (and hence our quiescence), and now that suddenly things have gone bad, we must speak against them. However, it helps only in adding numbers; it does not help at all in understanding the problem as it stands in its entirety. Anonymous OpIndia (Operation India) fails because it is innocent of the history of state-repression, of what it thinks it addresses.

Consider some other parts of the argument: we'll give AI that they've been consistent about their demand for freedom of expression on the internet. However, what about torrents and other web-hosting rights? “Torrents are widely used to distribute open source and free software such as linux distributions, and many other books and publications that are in the public domain. .. Many small - medium businesses use vimeo to showcase their services and individuals including filmmakers and designers use it to promote their work. .. Most of these sites provide a mechanism for illegal and copyrighted content to be taken down, but the GoI and Indian ISPs decided to bypass this mechanism and block these sites entirely.” AI is unwilling to recognize, or at least discuss, peer-to-peer rights like the ones used in torrents. If I wish to lend or borrow something I possess, and there's already a system existing that facilitates that, why block those systems? This is a question AI refuses to ask; it is a spokesperson for business rights, and seeks to even out the creases that have come into the surface of a cyber-operating business class. How much of the internet freedom argument, then, is to be considered seriously? (Interestingly, many enthusiasts and supporters, in spite of this open stand, express their solidarity on the fb pages, saying they want their movie/game sources back.)

I put an open question on fb (with some substantiation): shouldn't AI be addressing broader questions of state policy, and acknowledge it's historically aggressive role in society? Two replies to it, each interesting in its own right: first read “tl;dr”. Urban Dictionary says this means “too long, didn't read”. The second reply was a URL to the Anonymous India website, with two things written underneath: first, that primary focus was internet freedoms, other things being secondary. Second, “we are Anonymous, we are legion, we are an idea”. It's perplexing, but true: such slogans (if we may allow them this label) have become signatures of hundreds of AI enthusiasts. Two things are interesting to note: there's a very strong narcissistic spin in everything, borrowing from everything popular, from Guy Fawkes imageology to Anna Hazare-like verbage. The romanticist air of the revolutionary leaving for work is hard to miss. Secondly, related to this: the protest is a good occasion to come out in one's latest apparel, a mask and black overalls. The facebook pages of have turned into advertisements of mask-manufacturers (the second most asked question is: has anybody called the media?). Claims to represent “the 99 percent!”, and such paraphernalia seem incompatible, not just by the price (which would seem exhorbitant anyhow to most of the 99 percent), but by the very apparent absurdity and incongruity of the paraphernalia in regard to a protest. But again, this is just another pointer to the scope of OpIndia.

But let's just look at this hooh-hah in light of some other facts: paranoid shreiks in AI pages, highlighted in all sorts of ways (emboldened, reddened, UPPERCASE, etc.) beseeching all anonymous protesters “this is a nonviolent protest”. A little enquiry yeilded insights into what was meant by “non-violent”: the venue for the Mumbai protests was shifted from Gateway of India (the pride of Mumbai) to Azad Maidan (the prison house for all protests in Mumbai). When I asked for reasons on the fb page, I was told due to lack of permissions. I pointed out that one doesn't usually request permission from those one protests against. To this came the reply: the protest is non-violent. I inferred that this is not the non-violence we usually talk about, but is rather more akin to abiding by a benevolent, peace-loving state with it's golden laws. I was also told that a shift of venue doesn't mean anything. My feeling is that this protest has already been marked by state authorities as 'safe'. More facts; invitation procedure: simply sending invites to everybody on your friend-list. However, what goes on the posters, what goes in the slogans has been decided by a small clique of AI operants. The shift of venue itself was simply announced. Then came the calls for 'volunteers'. We keep everything in this paragraph in account, and look at the first claim of Anonymous: “Anonymous is a decentralized network of individuals.” Definitely not; if you're into event-management, you cannot afford to be decentralized. This is, unfortunately, true of AI.

OxbloodRuffin, in an article hosted by Kafila, has made two interesting observations:

Any discussion of Anonymous is problematic. One is never sure which Anonymous is being referenced: the meme, the group as a whole, or an individual operation.” Hence we find these inconsistencies within what seems the same Anonymous umbrella. A question of importance here is the relative role of cyber-freedom in the different societies Anonymous has had operations in.

Anonymous India and Why This Kolaveri di have two things in common. Both have achieved their fame through the Internet. And both are engagingly superficial.” Anonymous India has considered the possibility of a physical protest. However, it has surrendered it, in spirit, from the outset, to state leash. It has refused to delve deeper into state-repression in India while making claims addressing state hypocrisy, taking away of freedoms, etc. It fails to differentiate between a papparazzi event and a protest. However, there is at least one serious positive we must look at: it has managed to mobilize to a sizeable group of people, and to connect to an even bigger mass. Whatever the character of this mobilization, it is an important occasion for discussion, if there be concerted efforts. Unfortunately, efforts are not visible in the e-sphere in which the mobilization has taken place, but there's no need to think 9th June to be the deadline. AI OpIndia not only succeeds in mobilizing, but also in becoming a case to be considered for discussion.

It also holds a special place in the internal affairs of India. It is not a protest, but the image of one. However, much energies, much frustration could possibly find vent here, and there might be satisfaction of feeling one has lodged one's protest, even by help of such an image. The political class are already happy for two related reasons – many believe this is a protest, yet the protesters are already toeing the line. (Look at this for some protest guidelines) It's true that AI poses little danger as such; but still, it makes 'administrative sense' to award cyber concessions as a decoy-victory to ensure that that safety-valve is well-open (though this move also depends on other factors, like the interests involved in those cyber-laws, the relative trade-off between the safety-valve and those interests, the perception of the political class of this issue, etc.). We still await the events of 9th June, 2012, and thereafter, to come to conclusions.